30 July, 2008

A Day at the USO: Mothers and Children of All Ages

Last week at the USO was... interesting. One of the more satisfying in terms of believing my presence made a difference, but one of the more disturbing because I couldn't fix everything--particularly a strong but suffering military wife and a freaked out Marine recruit. What a day...

For quite a few hours, a young woman and her small daughter had staked out the children's room. We heard frequent cries that would usually quickly recede, but the tension in the sounds emanating from the room rarely eased. I hate to say it, but the poor mother looked a wreck... moreso than is usual for a mother of a toddler.

Later in the afternoon, she put the child in a stroller and stopped at the desk with a question. Question led to conversation, whereupon I learned how much I could and couldn't help her...

In short, she was an impressive young woman. She and her husband were in their mid-twenties. A year and a half ago, he joined the military. When I asked what motivated him to join at a later age, she gestured to their daughter. "After she was born, we were really struggling, so we looked at our options. We could live precariously for awhile in hopes that plans may work out, or we could have the security of the military and a good retirement in 20 years..."

"--And the likelihood of deployment," I added.

She nodded. "He's leaving in [next year]."

We talked and laughed a bit about what it must be like for her "peers" (fellow spouses) to be 18-21 when she's in her mid/late twenties. We rolled our eyes about the differences between women at those ages and lamented the all-too-frequent immature reactions to their husbands' deployments. She said she was a bit of a big sister to the young women in her neighborhood, but agreed with my guess that she wished for serious and mature friends who also understood the military life.

But that wasn't the hardest part. Her little two-year-old was another of those "littlest draftees." The child was having trouble coping the two weeks home/two weeks in the field pre-deployment training schedule; she has become Daddy's Little Girl and the back-and-forth keeps her from adjusting to him being gone. As her frazzled mother put it, "I wish it was time for him to deploy now, then maybe she would eventually settle down.

In the meantime, not only is Mom every two weeks a single mother with a toddler, the toddler doesn't sleep more than a few minutes at a time for a total of two or three hours a day when Dad is gone. No joke. Mom and daughter are thus operating on extreme sleep deprivation, with all the attendant physical and emotional repercussions. She told me about the professional support they are getting, and it's obvious her family is "there for her," but this is going to take awhile.

In a bolt of "D'oh!" I remembered SpouseBUZZ. It would be the perfect solution to her need for true peers instead of the mere children who are usually married to men of her husband's rank! She was very receptive. "I'm a real techie, so I'll definitely check it out," she said. "Everyone is so nice in my husband's unit. I mean, the Staff Sergeant's wife told me to call if I need anything. But, come on! Yeah, right," she rolled her eyes, "I'm gonna call my husband's SSG's wife when I'm falling apart! SpouseBUZZ would be the perfect alternative."

So, it felt good to be her sounding board, to sympathize with her, and to give her a resource through SpouseBUZZ. But I couldn't do more--couldn't fix her child, couldn't change her husband's schedule, couldn't give her the sleep she needed.

Another person there that day was having a bit of a crisis, too. It was recruit day--the Marine drill instructors pick up their recruits at the airport USO. A worried-looking young man approached the desk and asked, in a stumbling and stuttering manner, "What do I do if I don't want to go?"

I thought he was mostly joking, and laughed a little. "Oh, you'll be fine."

He shook his head. "I... I think I made a mistake."

Upon gentle questioning, he revealed that he thought he'd been "talked into" joining the Marines. "It was the thing to do. I mean... everybody was doing it.... Well, lots of people. My friend talked me into it. I don't know what I'm doing here. I'm thousands of miles away from my family..." His voice faded and he looked at the floor. "I won't make it through boot camp."

"You're right," I said. His head jerked up. "The person you are today doesn't yet have what it takes to get all the way through boot camp. But it's a process, and you will have what you need by the time you get to where you need it. You are not the person you'll be in thirteen weeks."

That didn't reassure him. "But what if I don't want to be that person?"

I was surprised. "What do you mean, 'that person?'"

"My friend is the military type. I'm not."

"Oh," I said. "So, what is the military type?"

He couldn't answer, so I talked about some of the Marines I know--about their non-military
qualities (character forged by their experiences) that make them people I love and appreciate in my life.

I pressed him to answer his statement, "What makes your friend the 'military type?' What makes him different than you?" But the best he could say was, "My friend's different. He's gonna go his whole life in the Marines. I'm not like that."

I reminded him that he wasn't signing up for the rest of his life. He shook his head. "How do I show them I'm not supposed to be here? What do I do to get them to throw me out?" he asked.

"Is that what you really want, to screw up on purpose?" I kept my voice gently curious.

He looked a little chagrined for having said that.

I could sense this was a crossroads for him and I didn't want to erroneously pressure him either direction, but I feared for what he would think of himself down the road if he chickened out at this stage. I took it as far as I wanted to go: "If they see during training that you just aren't cut out for the Marines, they will send you on your way, and there is no shame in finding out it wasn't a good choice for you. But you have a decision to make. You have to be able to look yourself in the mirror. Think about how you want to see yourself, what's important to you, what your standards and your values are. Would you feel better about yourself if you gave it your best and found out you fell just short or it wasn't a good fit, or would you be okay with backing out after you made a commitment? That's up to you and it's not something I can judge. To make a decision, you need to think about how you'll look back on this down the road."

He swallowed hard, but had a bit of a trapped look on his face. After a moment he spoke with great agitation, "I don't want go anywhere there are bullets. Bullets and I don't mix!"

I was at a loss. Why in the heck was he signing up for the Marines, then? I glanced at the director's empty office, knowing that were he there, I could hand the kid off to a retired sergeant major who had been CSM of a recruit depot. Surely he would know better what to do or say, be better at evaluating whether this was just nerves or genuine recognition of error.

For the last few moments of that conversation, two twenty-something Marines in civilian clothes had been standing at the desk to check in. The one in front gave off a positive, unflappable, staff sergeant vibe. I asked him, "Where are you in your career? How long have you been in?" When he said seven years, I gestured wordlessly to the recruit.

He looked the kid up and down. "Recruit, huh?"

"Yes, sir." He was almost wild-eyed.

"What MOS did you sign up for?"

"Admin, sir. I signed up for Reserves."

The two Marines busted up laughing. The recruit looked absolutely mortified and I panicked for a moment, fearing I'd misread the two Marines. "Admin? Admin?! Kid, you've got it so easy. You just gotta get through bootcamp and it's smooth sailing."

I stared at the SSG in front of me, hoping he could read my "Lay off, he's freaking out!" expression. He took his time signing in while the kid stood there looking stricken. Then with a sideways nod, he looked at the kid and said gently, "Come on, let's talk."

The recruit looked to me for a cue. I smiled and nodded. "Go on, he's a good guy."

They disappeared together outside. About an hour later, the SSG came by and said, "He's a momma's boy, but he'll be okay. I talked to a bunch of them out there, answered all their questions and gave them some tips. He'll be fine." I thanked him, and shared my fears that the recruit would regret it something awful if he bailed out now. The Marine agreed. "He's just scared, unsure of himself. He'll spend the night bawling, but he'll make it."

I had to defer to the Marine's expertise, hope that the advice and perspectives we gave the recruit had been the right thing... hope we hadn't steered him wrong.

I've been thinking about that kid all week, wondering if he's still at MCRD, wondering what he'll be like if he makes it through, and wondering whether he'll look back at the SSG and me with gratitude or resentment. I hope we did the right thing...

Like I said, a satisfying but disturbing day.